1 Put on your house shoes
So, here we are then my little Ausländer. Your first day as an aspiring German. You’ll have woken up in your bed, probably because it’s gotten light outside and you don’t have curtains, because curtains are evil and suggest you have something to hide.
I would like to be able to tell you why Germans are so in love with their house shoes, I’ve asked several but still have no definitive answer. Not because they’ve not told me, but because the answer is so incredibly unromantic, so sensible, practical and boring that my happy little barefoot brain has no idea where to store information of that nature and so just gives up committing it to memory.
2 Eat a long breakfast
Coming from England, I was very surprised to see how important the kitchen is to the German people. The English tend to treat it purely as a room of function, like the toilet, only with a fridge. You get in, do what you’ve got to do, get out.The living room is the heart of the home.
For the Germans, it’s a different story, they are happiest and spend the most time in their kitchens. It’s the most practical room in the house. You have a table, water, coffee, food, radio, serious, correct-posture-encouraging seating. They’ve correctly realised, if trouble does come calling, they’ll be best prepared for it by holing up in their kitchens.
German breakfasts are not meals, but elaborate feasts. If it’s a weekend, every square inch of the table will be smothered in an assortment of meats, cheeses, fruits, jams, spreads and other condiments. It’ll look like someone broke in and while hunting for valuables just tipped the contents of all the cupboards out onto the table.
The first time I experienced breakfast in a German WG it lasted so long that I drifted off into a sort of breakfast coma and they had to wake me with some eszet, which is a sort of chocolate strip you put on bread. I didn’t know you could legally combine chocolate and bread, it was quite a revelation. Now I just eat eszet with everything, and slowly I’ve learnt to eat more and also slower, during the long drawn out German breakfasts.
The worst gameshow I’ve ever seen was an English one called “Touch the truck”. It’s premise, if I can be so generous as to call it that, was that lots of people touch a truck and then we all wait, the last person to let go off the truck, wins the truck. It sometimes feels like German breakfasts work on a similar premise, only the truck is breakfast.
3 Planning, Preparation, Process
So far, so good. Look at you, you’re up early, you’ve got your radio on, no doubt some Depeche Mode is blasting out, you’re eating a slow and ponderous German breakfast, you’re acclimatising very well, young Ausländer.
Now you need to enter the headspace of the Germans. If you want to be one, you need to think like one, which is a big task and we’ll cover it in more detail in later steps. But for now, start accepting the three central tenets of Germanism. The three P’s. Planning, Preparation, Process.
Being a good German is about understanding the risks, insuring for what can be insured, preparing for what cannot. You are your own life’s project manager. Plan and prepare. Make spreadsheets, charts and lists. Think about what you’re doing each day and how you can make it more efficient.
Is it possible you arrange your shoe storage so that the most used items are nearer the top, reducing bending time? I don’t care if you’re 17, it’s taking you nearly a full minute to get your shoes on, buy a shoe horn! Optimise your processes!
Just because they call it spontaneity, doesn’t mean it can’t be scheduled. There’s a time and place for fun, and it’s to be pre-decided and marked in the calendar. All else is frivolous chaos. So sit down now and make a plan for the day, then the week, then the month. Then book your holidays until 2017. To make it easier, just go to the same place. How about Mallorca? All the other Germans go there, there must be something to it.
4 Get some insurances
Everyone knows it’s a jungle out there. Hence why we created the phrase. So, plucky Ausländer before you go out into the jungle and start swinging from its high branches, it’s wise you be sensibly insured. Germans, being imaginative people ran a little wild with the concept of sensibly insured.
Don’t be surprised if the Germans you meet all have personal insurance advisors. My girlfriend communicates with her insurance advisor more often than I do with my mother. If someone invented insurance insurance, an insurance against not having the right insurance, we’d all be treated to the sight of 80 million people dying of happiness.
5 Dress seriously
Plan made for the day? Insurances in place? Great. Good work! Now it’s time to change out of your Schlumperklamotten and head outside to face the day head on. You’re going to need to get appropriately dressed.
6 Speak German
Every nation has done things it should be embarrassed about. Dark acts in its history. The Germans are no exception. You know of what I talk – the German language. Deutsch is mostly an incomprehensible jumble of exceptions. A dungeon designed to trap foreigners and hold them hostage, repeatedly flogging them with impenetrable and largely useless grammatical devices, whose only merit is to very, very, explicitly state who has what and what is being done to whom, by whom.
The bad news is that for you to fully blend with the Germans, you’ll need to learn it. In principle, it’s not that hard. It works in two stages. Learning words and learning the grammar. Learning words is fun, most are even similar to English thanks to our shared ancestry, you’ll zip along making great progress and really enjoying wrapping your tongue around such delights as Schwangerschaftsverhütungsmittel, Weltschmerz and Zeitgeist.
Then, confident at all the little snippets you’ve already accumulated, you’ll start learning the grammar, the putty that builds your mutterings into real, coherent German sentences. This is where you’ll start to feel cheated. German grammar is impenetrable nonsense.
English, at least linguistically, has always been the biggest slut in the room. Giving and taking from other languages. Trying to make you like it. Keeping it simple. My pet theory is that the Germans, despite their committed efforts, were not as successful as the English in their world power plays and so the English language has always, historically, been forced like a bridge made of glue to ford whatever cultural divide lay between us and whoever we were conquering, sorry colonising this week, so we had to smooth down its rougher edges, which is a poetic way of saying, kick out all the hard bits.
It was forced to evolve in a way that German had not been. German retained the grammatical complexity of Old English.
Take genders as an example, present in Old English, still present in German, yet assigned utterly arbitrarily. Sure, there are some sort of vague guidelines about how words end or that almost everything to do with time is der. That’ll help you with maybe 30 per cent of nouns. That still leaves 70 per cent that you’ll have to learn by heart so you can decline correctly.
You’ll waste so much time memorising genders (PRO TIP: never learn a noun without its article, going back later and adding them in is very time consuming and inefficient). Yet, without knowing the gender of the noun, you can’t accurately decline the endings of the sentences, nouns and adjectives or adverbs. Which is utterly pointless anyway, and does next to nothing to increase comprehension but without it you’ll say very embarrassing things like einer grosser Wasser, instead of ein grosses wasser. I know, cringeworthy.
Of course there are far harder languages to learn than German, that’s not my point. English also has its stupidities, like a staunch commitment to being unphonetic. The difference is that English was kind enough to be easy in the beginning, it ramps up slowly and encouragingly. German just plonks you down in front of a steep mountain, says “viel spass” and walks off as you begin your slow ascent.
When I first started learning the language, which mostly consisted of me getting nowhere and just sitting around bitching about it, I was gently reminded by a friend that some of the smartest things ever written were written in this language. First you need only respect it, later you can learn to like it.
7 Get some more qualifications
When I first moved here I was given the advice that “while in England, it’s he who drinks the most and doesn’t vomit on his shoes, that gets the girl, here it’s he who knows the most about philosophy that gets the girl”. That’s an exaggeration.
But the Germans, on account of their excellent school system (at least in comparison to the English), and the extraordinarily long time they tend to study (now reducing as they’ve adopted the Bachelor/Masters system) are an intellectual bunch. As a result, they also tend to have a great number of qualifications.
Vanity always needs an audience, it’s no different with intellectual vanity. So the Germans needed to create situations in which they could gently remind other Germans how much more qualified they are than them. An outdated idea in English culture, where everything is on a first-name basis, I am Adam, he is John, it’s what in our heads that shows our qualifications and intelligence.
Here, it’s the letters before or after our full name, letters we use when addressing each other, for example Herr Dr or Frau Prof Dr.h.c Schmidt, none of this first name over-familiarity. Even the humble doorbell offers an opportunity for neighbour one-upmanship, where academic qualifications can be listed.
You can expect occasional smirks and reassuring pats on the shoulder, when you tell them you only have a BA in Theatre Studies, as if they’ve a new found respect for the fact you’ve managed to dress yourself properly.
8 Obey the red man
I think the often exaggerated stereotype that Germans love to follow the rules all comes down to one little illuminated red man. Guardian and God of the crossing pedestrian. To dare challenge his authority and step gingerly out into a completely empty road when he is still red, is to take great personal risk.
Not of getting run over, the road is completely empty after all. Bar being struck by an invisible car, you’re safe.
No, what you really risk is the scorn, the tutting and the shouts of “Halt!” from nearby Germans. Who will now consider you an irresponsible, possibly suicidal, social renegade.
Halt! Await the green Ampelmännchen. Consider it an elaborate exercise in self-control. You’ll need all that self-control not to freak out and start shooting the first time you visit the Ausländerbehörde and find out they don’t speak English.
9. Drink Apfelsaftschorle
Germans fear any beverage that doesn’t fizz. It brings them out in a cold sweat. It’s a great comedic joy to live in a country where you can watch tourists and foreigners buying “classic” water, thinking that since for millions of years now “classic” water, you know, the kind that fallen from the sky since the dawn of time, was still, uncarbonated water, it would be the same here, right?
Oh no. Millions of years of water history have been conveniently forgotten. “Classic” means carbonated, of course. You big silly. Learn to like it. If not, when visiting the homes of your new German friends, you’ll request tap water and they’ll look at you like you are some primitive savage they just found in the woods covered in a blanket of your own hair.
Related to this is Apfelsaftschorle. You know in movies when people go to therapy and then the therapist asks them to create a happy place. A safe, tranquil spot they can turn to when the world gets too big and scary. Usually it’s a beach, or a rocking chair on the front porch of an idyllic childhood home?
For Germans, that happy place is swimming naked in a lake of Apfelsaftschorle. Tired after a long day of stamping and form filling, confronted with a 15-page long restaurant menu, baffled by the burdens of choice, they always retreat to their happy place and order Apfelsaftschorle. It’s steady, reliable.
For more than a century Germans, smug with their discovery of fizzy water, all their abundant breweries producing fine beers and ales, they didn’t believe it could get any better. Then some bright spark tried adding a little apple juice to that fizzy water. Creating something equally refreshing, but 6 per cent more fun! It was a near riot.
People were not ready. It was almost too fun. An all-night discoparty for the tastebuds. Of course, it won’t taste like that to you, with your funny foreign pallet. Apfelsaftschorle will taste to you as it really is, a fractional improvement on water’s boring taste.
10 Eat German food
It’s hard to discuss German cuisine without mentioning Wurst, at which point you’ll feel like I’m smacking you about the head with the stereotype stick. So I won’t. Wurst is important, but I think more for what it represents than how it tastes. Wurst is terribly boring. For a country to have elevated it so highly, shows a startling lack of imagination. Which, once you’ve experienced even more of the German cuisine, you’ll have no problem in accepting.